Answering Tough Questions in a Recession

Answering Tough Questions in a Recession

By Bob Harris, CAE

Most associations have survived downturns and turmoil. They have proven to be resilient through various crises, including economic recession. During these times, however, it's likely that board members will reflect their personal situations at the board table. If their company is negatively impacted by the economy, they may apply an attitude of doom and gloom to the association. Here are some approaches to answer the board that thinks it's best to shutter the doors or spend down the savings reserve.

Reach Out

  • Assign board members to canvas members on the economy’s impact on their business. Ask just two or three questions to ascertain economic conditions on the members. After the board gathers the data, decisions at the board table should be based on member needs rather that board gloominess.


  • Make no assumptions. The best members, exhibitors, advertisers, and sponsors might cut the association out of the budget. Approach key members to assess their satisfaction and intent to participate in 2009.


  • Recognizing that not every board member is highly influential. Take time to communicate with the board’s key decision makers to find out how they think the economy will impact the association.


  • Be open and honest with the leadership. If conference registration is significantly down, for instance, share the data; don’t hide the facts.


  • Identify benchmarks. Set up a scorecard to measure programs and financial indicators during the recession. If a program is offered but doesn’t meet budget expectations nor advance the mission, consider cutting.


  • Discuss alternatives to current programs and costs. It’s possible a three-day conference might be a one-day meeting this year. Or a printed annual report becomes a PDF distributed by e-mail.

Shape Up

  • When the economy rebounds, you’ll want the association to be ready. Focus on staff and leadership training during a slow period to enhance workforce skills.


  • Review existing programs, benefits, and services. Maybe it’s time to cut back on programs to save money. The recession might also be the opportunity to trim the number of committees and member benefits.


  • Ask the toughest question: Is there a need to exist? Is a merger practical? Do other associations serve the community better?

Protect Revenues and Resources

  • Reserves are there to be used during tough times. If association savings are lowered, be sure they expend to advance the mission statement. Discuss and make a motion as to how and when the reserve account will be replenished.


  • Consider non-dues by reviewing the ration of dues to non-dues. Seek out programs that can enhance revenue, i.e. royalties, sponsorships, advertising, etc.


  • Approach major funders (sponsors, grants, etc.) to ensure they plan to continue their support. There may be ways the association can enhance services so donors are encouraged to continue or give more.

Review Benefits and Services

  • Repackage existing educational programs to reflect the changing needs of members in a recession. Turn live programs into on-line education.


  • Appoint a committee to update benefits and services; slashing those that have lost value to members.

If your board is transferring their own gloom and doom scenarios to the association, be prepared to respond with a plan of action.


Bob Harris, CAE, CEO of the Nonprofit Center, facilitated NYSAE's January CEO Institute on "Managing Your Board Now: Are You at Risk?" The session covered the impact of the economic climate on chief executive officers and their boards. He can be reached at 335 Beard Street, Tallahassee, FL 32303;  850-570-6000  850-570-6000 ;